Hack­berry’s worth a sec­ond look

The Progress-Index - At Home - - NEWS - LEE RE­ICH

With many trees and shrubs now bereft of leaves and flow­ers, more sub­tle as­pects of the land­scape come into fo­cus. A tree that many peo­ple hardly no­tice cap­tures my full at­ten­tion — specif­i­cally, its bark.

Hack­berry bark will not stop you in your tracks as does the dra­matic, shiny red, peel­ing bark of pa­per­bark maple or the ghostly white bark of lace­bark pine. Hack­berry bark pos­sesses a sub­tle beauty, sub­tle even in a sub­tle land­scape. You have to rec­og­nize the bark, then stop and re­ally look at it.

Hack­berry bark is at its best on a clear win­try day when no leafy canopy ob­structs the sun, and when the sun is low enough to glance side­ways off the gray bark’s ar­ranged ridges. Take a look at the way the bark’s corky ridges cre­ate crisp ar­eas of light and shadow evoca­tive of those sharp, achro­matic photographs of the lu­nar land­scape.

Hack­berry, al­though na­tive through­out much of the U.S., is not all that com­mon a tree. Pock­ets ex­ist here and there, of­ten near wa­ter­ways.

Hack­berry’s ap­peal goes be­yond its bark

Hack­berry is also worth at­ten­tion in other sea­sons. It bears a de­lec­ta­ble fruit that tastes like a date. Un­for­tu­nately, the fruit is only the size of a large pea and much of it is pit. Still it’s worth a nib­ble.

Birds also ap­pre­ci­ate the fruits. Birds that feed on hack­ber­ries in­clude cedar waxwings, mock­ing­birds, Amer­i­can robins, blue­birds, yel­low-bel­lied sap­suck­ers, north­ern flick­ers and quail. The berries con­tinue to hang from the branches well into win­ter. They are among the pre­ferred win­ter foods for wild tur­keys.

Elm-ish Qual­i­ties

In many re­spects, hack­berry is sim­i­lar to the Amer­i­can elm, to which it is re­lated. Al­though nei­ther plant has col­or­ful flow­ers in the spring or blaz­ing fo­liage in au­tumn, both th­ese bot­tom­land trees tol­er­ate di­verse soil con­di­tions. Hack­berry tol­er­ates even a greater range of en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions than does the elm, laugh­ing off drought, pol­lu­tion and wind. Both trees also are easy to trans­plant, and grow rapidly.

The qual­ity for which the Amer­i­can elm is most loved, and which hack­berry also pos­sesses, is form. Both grow to be­come large, vase­shaped trees, ma­jes­tic on their own or di­vine when planted in rows on ei­ther side of an av­enue, over which their up­per branches meet to form a nat­u­ral cathe­dral.

Pests? Not to worry

Amer­i­can elm gets Dutch elm disease, which has dec­i­mated the species as a land­scape plant. Hack­berry, be­sides hav­ing at­trac­tive bark and tasty fruits, is im­mune to Dutch elm disease.

Hack­berry is prone to a cou­ple of dis­eases, no­tably nip­ple-gall on the leaves and witches’ broom on branches and twigs. Th­ese af­flic­tions cause some dis­fig­ure­ment, but not the death of the plant.

I’m not sug­gest­ing plant­ing hack­ber­ries now in the way Amer­i­can elms were planted in the 19th cen­tury, up and down ev­ery street and in ev­ery park. Such plant­ing, es­pe­cially if it were just a sin­gle hack­berry va­ri­ety — Windy City or Prairie Pride, for in­stance — would in­vite dis­as­ter. A disease that found fer­tile ground could run ram­pant and de­nude the land­scape.

I do sug­gest that you keep an eye out for hack­berry trees, es­pe­cially now, and ad­mire them. And, oc­ca­sion­ally, plant one.


In this Dec. 2 photo, the corky ridges of the hack­berry’s bark have a sub­tle beauty, with crisp ar­eas of light and shadow evoca­tive of photographs of the lu­nar land­scape, in New Paltz, New York.

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